On September 26, Germans head to the polls in a parliamentary vote that will determine the chancellor to succeed Angela Merkel. Germany has a notoriously complex voting system for electing its Bundestag — the lower house of parliament. The system seeks to combine the benefits of both direct and proportional representation. 60.4 million people age 18 and above are eligible to vote in the 2021 national election. Of those, 31.2 million are women and 29.2 million are men, with some 2.8 million first-time voters. Over a third of Germany's electorate are over 60 years old, meaning the older generation often has particular sway over the election outcome. The largest number of eligible voters live in the most populous western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, followed by the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

When Germans head to the polls on September 26, they'll receive a  simple ballot with two choices — one for a district representative and one for a party. The first vote or "Erststimme" for the district representative, follows a first-past-the-post system. The voter selects his or her favorite candidate to represent their district in the parliament. Every candidate who wins one of Germany's 299 constituencies — one constituency for 250,000 inhabitants — is guaranteed a seat. Independent candidates can also run - if they have gathered at least 200 signatures from supporters. German states with larger populations have more constituencies and get to send more representatives to the Bundestag than the smaller ones.

To fill the other half of the 598 seats in Germany's Bundestag, voters cast their ballots in the second vote or "Zweitstimme." This vote goes to a political party instead of a single candidate. It also determines the percentage each political party gets in the Bundestag. At party conferences the parties draw up lists with candidates for each federal state. Again: States with a larger population get to send more parliamentarians to the Bundestag than smaller ones. The parties rank their candidates, and only the top few names are printed on the ballots. So while the voter chooses a party, he cannot be sure which individuals further down on the party list will make it into the Bundestag.

What makes the elections particularly interesting is that the ballot allows voters to split their vote amongst parties, perhaps voting for their local CDU candidate in the first vote, but casting their ballot for the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in the second vote, to help the CDU's traditional small coalition partner to get into parliament. The ballot contains two votes: one for a candidate and one for a party

'Overhang' seats

Sometimes, a party will receive more direct parliament seats through the first vote than they deserve according to the party vote. Since each candidate who wins a district is guaranteed a seat, the party gets to maintain those "overhang" seats. It is first and foremost the CDU/CSU which fields a large number of popular and ultimately successful candidates. Other parties then also get more seats to make up for this, ultimately making the parliament larger than its base number of 598 seats. .

'The 5 percent hurdle'

In order for a party to enter the Bundestag, it has to win at least 5 percent of the second vote. The "five percent hurdle" has served to keep the far-right NPD and other extremist parties out of the Bundestag.

Currently, there are six parties represented in the Bundestag: Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right CDU and its Bavarian sister-party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Left Party, the Greens, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which emerged as the strongest opposition party in the 2017 vote. The plenary chamber has additional seats added to it when the number of MPs goes above 598

Who picks the chancellor?

Voters in Germany do not directly elect the chancellor, who is the head of the government. The new parliament must convene for the first time no later than one month after the vote. It can be earlier if coalition talks go swiftly. The top candidate from the party that wins the most votes usually manages to forge a coalition. The president, who is the head of state and plays a largely ceremonial role, then presents this person as candidate for chancellor, who the newly-elected members of parliament then approve in a secret ballot.

Main Options

  1. CDU/CSU+ FDP+ Greens: If the Christian Democrats place first, this alliance is considered by many to be the most likely coalition. After eight years of the current “grand coalition,” both the CDU and the SPD are keen to end their collaboration. In addition to the chancellory, the expectation is that the CDU/CSU would control the economy ministry, the Greens would get a beefed-up environmental portfolio and the foreign office, and the FDP would run the finance ministry. The alliance would have a big majority in the Bundestag and an appetite for major reform in key areas such as the environment and transport. The ideological differences between the Greens and the other two parties are significant in areas such as taxation and EU integration, especially with the FDP, which would likely trigger infighting within the coalition. After the last election in 2017, these three groups initially did try to form a coalition, until FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled out.
  2. SPD+ FDP+ Greens: A coalition between the SPD, the FDP and the Greens, many observers believe this option is the likely outcome if the Social Democrats edge out the CDU/CSU for first place. With polls showing most Germans oppose the inclusion of the Left party in government, this combination would likely enjoy broad support. This coalition would have big parliamentary majority and broad public support. On the other hand, there are strong cultural and policy differences between the two left-of-center parties (SPD and Greens) and the FDP, especially on key issues such as taxes and deficit spending. FDP base would bristle at cooperation with the other two parties.
  3. SPD+ the Left+ Greens: This trio would be the most left-leaning of the available options. There woudl be ideological coherence on core issues such as taxes, social welfare and refugee policy, but a slim parliamentary majority, big differences between the Left, which wants to exit NATO, and the other two on a number of foreign policy fronts, including Russia and the transatlantic relationship. The biggest worry is that the coalition would risk deep polarization in German society.
  4.  CDU/CSU+ SPD+ FDP: A centrist coalition with a big majority in the Bundestag, this would be the closest alternative to the current grand coalition. That’s the main reason it’s unlikely. It would enjoy a consensus coalition with broad public support but longstanding ideological differences would lead to preserving the status quo instead of pursuing ambitious reforms in areas such as environmental policy, Europe and the economy. 
  5. CDU/CSU+ SPD+ Greens:  The best chance for this scenario would be if the SPD finishes in first and the Christian Democrats are willing to play second fiddle. But that’s a big if. This alliance would enjoy big, moderate majority in the Bundestag without much potential for deep conflict within the coalition. It would be effectively a continuation of the grand coalition that would likely result in the same lack of ambition that has characterized the past several years.   

Whatever combination of parties gets to govern in the end, one thing is for sure: the coalition talks will again be lengthy and complicated. According to the constitution, Merkel will remain as chancellor until a replacement administration is approved by the Bundestag. If the talks drag on beyond Dec. 16, a national record will be broken: Merkel will have been in power longer than her CDU predecessor and former mentor Helmut Kohl, and would thus become Germany’s longest-serving chancellor.


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